This Week In Bots: The Running, Climbing, Flying On Other Worlds Edition

Running is hard, flying is hard, rocketing is hard–here’s what innovative advances have been made in enabling robots to do all these things recently:



Mabel Runs Fast, Really Fast

The University of Michigan’s MABEL robot is a runner, and has been for a while: Now she (he? it?) runs faster than ever, possibly as fast as a robot’s run on two human-ish legs ever. Though its top speed of 6.8 miles an hour isn’t up to Usain Bolt levels, it’s an impressive feat because MABEL’s designed to use its weight, sprung tendons and servomuscles in the same way a human body works–enabling it to tackle obstacles and slips like a real pair of legs would. 

MABEL’s a tech prototype, and the movement algorithms and leg design it incorporates should be invaluable in designing robot leg prostheses and in future off-road vehicles that, like BigDog, can tackle terrain that wheels and tracks might fail on. 

Robot Book Thieves


Swarmanoid just won a big prize at the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence competition, and with good reason: The bots represent one of the best demonstrations of the power of a distributed robot group working to finish a task. Think of swarmanoid as a typical android that’s been broken into several parts: Eyebots fly and attach to surfaces like ceilings and walls to survey the situation and inform other members of the swarm what’s going on, handbots climb and grab things and footbots roll on the floor but combine together to make a moving platform capable of manipulting large objects.

In the award-winning video clip their task was to identify a book on a bookshelf, move over to the shelf, climb it and retrieve the target text. Swarms like this will be useful in search and rescue situations, in military and spy situations and also for exploring planets like Mars–possibly even helping build habitats for humans.

Maple Seed Drone Bot

Lockheed Martin just demonstrated its Samari flying drone robot publicly for the first time, and it’s unlike any you’ve seen before on TV coverage of spy drones in Iraq: It’s small, hand launchable, and takes most of its design cues from one of nature’s flying helicopters–the maple seed. With just one wing and one main propelling motor, the drone is simple and cheap and could even be printed out en-masse using rapid prototyping techniques. It also can hover to provide static surveillance, thrown around corners by troops conducting close-support ground activities in urban areas, or even air-dropped in swarms to provide detailed close-up intel that aerial imagery can’t match.


Lockheed’s main advances in making the tech weren’t in aerodymanics, but instead in controlling the flight in meaningful ways–unlike a maple seed the Samari can fly upwards and around and about too. If the idea takes off, it could end up saving a lot of lives in difficult situations and its simplicity could even make it useful for exploration in other planet’s atmostpheres.

Robot Landers

NASA’s busy pushing the development of two different robotic lander designs that will be used on future missions to the Moon and beyond. The Johnson Space Center’s Morpheus lander is due to make two flight tests this month which will see the rocket-powered drone take off under power, fly up to around 100 feet, then land automatically on another landing pad some 130 feet away. It’s a tethered flight test, to make sure no mishaps upset the flight and crash the valuable prototype.


Meanwhile the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Robotic Lander Development Project is preparing its rocket pod for more free-flight, untethered tests. The lander has sophisticated sensors and control over its rocket engines to enable it to land automatically on airless worlds like the Moon.

Baby steps, for each of these projects, but they’re crucial ones because when we ultimately return to the Moon, or move on to Mars, depending on how the U.S. government directs NASA’s future direction, people will fly in sophisticated robot landers that are descended from these experiments–a far cry from the more manual man-in-the-loop craft that carried Armstrong and others to the Moon 40 years ago.

Robot Chopper

The Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate just awarded another $47 million to a partnership between Lockheed and Kaman Aerospace to deliver an unmanned robot helicopter. It’s based on the existing manned K-Max chopper, which uses a very unusual twin meshed rotor design to achieve very powerful thrust-to-weight flight conditions and thus making it ideal as a transport chopper. The idea is that future missions could call in a drop of equipment from a K-Max even while under fire–the chopper would be largely automated and thus not risk pilots’ lives in very difficult situations when a cargo vehicle exposes its vulnerable tech to ground fire. In the future, K-Max craft could even be used as medical evacuation ambulances, ferrying wounded directly from the front line, automatically, to field hospitals elsewhere.


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